Excel basics Using Excel

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This article, Excel basics, was last updated on 14 July 2008 and is now out of date and held in our online archive for reference. Explore our latest Technology articles.

excel buttons

The insert function helps you create a mathematical formula

Basic commands

Insert function

Helps you create a mathematical formula. The results of your formula appear in the selected cell.

Merge and centre

Joins a group of cells together to make a single cell. Hold down the left-hand mouse button and drag the cursor across the cells you want to merge.

Currency style

Converts a number to pounds and pence (3635.67 becomes £3,635.67, say).

Chart wizard

excel buttons

Use the chart wizard to create charts and graphs

Takes you through the steps needed to create a graph or chart on your worksheet.

Percent style

Click on this to convert a number to a percentage; 0.34 becomes 34%, while 1 becomes 100%.

Increase/decrease decimal

This moves the decimal point within a selected cell one place to the left or right.


Adds a list of numbers together. Select a cell below a vertical list then click AutoSum and Excel highlights the numbers it thinks you want to add together. Click AutoSum again or press Enter to complete the calculation.


Sorts data within a range of cells, in alphabetical or numerical (and ascending or descending) order.

Sheet tabs

Click on these to move between worksheets. Right-click on the tab to rename.

Finding your way around

sheet tabs in excel

Sheet tabs let you move between worksheets

At first glance, a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet - the computer equivalent of a paper ledger - looks a bit daunting. It's worth persevering, though; electronic spreadsheets can hold loads of data and perform even the most complicated calculations. Better still, you won't need to redo all your sums if the numbers change - Excel will update the calculations for you.

An Excel file, known as a workbook, contains a number of spreadsheets (called worksheets). Each worksheet is full of rectangular boxes known as cells and each cell has its own reference or cell address.

A cell address is identified by the letter of the column and the number of the row in which it sits. The highlighted cell in our example is D4, for example.

The most important part of the worksheet, however, is the formula bar (the long white box next to the Insert icon). Formulae are mathematical operations used to perform a calculation. 

A formula always starts with an = sign, and uses cell references to identify data to be included in the calculation. A typical formula might be =(D6-F4)*G8 (the asterisk represents multiplication).

Excel formulae follow the standard order of mathematical operations we all learnt at school - hence the brackets to indicate the part of the calculation that needs to be performed first. The formula bar shows the address of the selected cell on the left-hand side. Enter formulae in the long box.